As the nation marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Rosa Parks, we should avoid the temptation to see her as merely a historical figure, a heroine of the past. It would be easy to do so. After all, no city in America segregates its public transportation system by skin color, not even Montgomery, the capital of the old Confederacy, where Mrs. Parks famously refused to give up her seat to accommodate Jim Crow. Even so, Rosa Parks' example is about the future as much as the past.
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First of all, the memory of Rosa Parks ought to remind us that she didn't live in what we refer to as "the civil rights era," as though racial justice was achieved and can now be ignored. True, the awful state oppression against African-Americans, both north and south, was knocked down with legislative triumphs in areas of public accommodations, employment non-discrimination, and voting rights. Thank God. But racial reconciliation is never a finished project, at least not between Eden and Armageddon.
Beyond that, Christians especially ought to reflect on what Rosa Parks' civil disobedience reminds us about our life together in society.
When Mrs. Parks refused to give up her seat, she was affirming an ancient truth of the reality of natural law.
The bus boycott, sparked by her, was a revolt against an unjust law. Mrs. Parks, and the activists she motivated, never argued the law wasn't supported by the majority. They argued the law was wrong. As Martin Luther King Jr. also communicated in his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," civil law rests on a broader foundation of a law that is written in the heart, a law that transcends human cultures and majoritarian whims.
That natural law, embedded in the conscience, is the reason the power of the state, any state, is limited. Herod had some legitimate authority as ruler, but it was, as John the Baptist pointed out, "not lawful" that he should have another man's wife (Matthew 14:4). Caesar had the legitimate authority to wield the sword against evildoers, an authority the Scriptures affirmed (Romans 13:1-7), but he had no authority to dictate worship (Revelation 13:16-18). The temple leaders had a legitimate authority, an authority Jesus affirmed (Matthew 23:2-3), but they had no authority to forbid the preaching of the Gospel (Acts 4:18-20).
The natural law stands above human law, and gives its legitimacy. The law maintains order precisely because it is not the arbitrary expression of a ruler or of a mob. The law must give an account to a more ultimate Lawgiver. That's why Jesus, in His famous discourse on Caesar's coin, distinguishes between duty that must be rendered to government and that which must be rendered to God.
Rosa Parks' protest also affirms the persistence of natural rights.
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SOURCE: Baptist Press
Russell D. Moore